The Second Battle of Ypres in World War I, which dragged on for four weeks, culminated in 69,000 dead among the Allies (Canadians, British, French) and 35,000 among the Germans. The battle is most famous as the site of the first use by the Germans of a new chemical weapon, chlorine gas. Wafted toward the Allies as a low-lying, yellowish-green cloud, it caused asphyxiation - a relatively quick but horrible death.
Lt.-Col. Edward Morrison, a Canadian officer at Ypres (in the area of Belgium once known as Flanders), recalled:
“John” in Morrison's account is John McCrae, surgeon with the 1st Brigade of Canadian Field Artillery. An experienced physician and an army man for 20-odd years, 43-year-old McCrae was appalled by Ypres, describing it in a letter home as “seventeen days of Hades.” When the battle had raged for more than two weeks, McCrae saw a young friend and former student killed in battle. In the absence of a chaplain he recited part of the funeral service by memory over the friend’s grave, in utter darkness to avoid German fire. Soon after, while awaiting the arrival of yet more casualties, McCrae spent 20 minutes composing a poem that became one of the most popular of World War I. In it, the thousands who died near Ypres warn their comrades to continue the fight, so they will not have died in vain:
In a letter to Morrison, McCrae recalled that he composed this poem partly as an exercise in meter. (It's an unusual form, 13 lines in iambic tetrameter and 2 lines of 2 iambics each.) If you’ve ever tried to wrestle an intense emotion into the confines of strict meter, you’ll appreciate how distracting, and how much of a relief, such an intellectual exercise can be.
The poppy image is particularly apt. Poppies, which thrive in areas where the ground is churned up and no other vegetation survives – e.g., a battlefield – have for millennia been a symbol of sleep, because the seeds of some varieties produce opium and morphine. If their cause is betrayed, warn McCrae’s soldiers, they won’t rest despite all the soporific flowers growing on their graves. In the Flanders Field Memorial, an anonymous doughboy looks pensively at a bunch of poppies in his hand.
Appropriately, the statue is in the western fringes of what used to be known as “Hell’s Kitchen,” now politely known as Clinton. When I first wrote this page several years ago, the renovation of the area initiated by the building of Worldwide Plaza on Eighth Avenue at 50th St. had not reached Eleventh Avenue yet: it was a place you wouldn’t venture unless you were looking to buy cars, or perhaps illegal substances. Unless you know for certain that it's changed, go with a friend, go in a taxi, and go in the daytime.